The Strange Death of Brazilian Flair

The Strange Death of Brazilian Flair


Ahead of tonight’s semi-final clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona, Real’s Brazilian left-back Marcelo has pointedly suggested that he prefers ‘to win and not play well’ over defeat (here’s a link in Spanish).

Hardly a statement of earth-shattering profundity in itself (then again, Eric Cantona’s sardine analogy aside, has a footballer ever said ANYTHING interesting in a press conference?), but Marcelo’s chest-beating battlecry ahead of one of the most hotly-anticipated Spanish football games of recent years is more than just a statement of intent. It sums up an increasing trend in Brazilian football away from the flair and ingenuity which made the golden shirt a symbol of  The Beautiful Game’.

Tonight, four Brazilians look set to be involved: Marcelo and Kaka for Real Madrid (whose Brazilian-born centre-back Pepe opted to represent Portugal at international level), and Dani Alves and Adriano for Barcelona. Yet how many of these players can be said to embody the creativity and instinctive alegria (‘joy’) we still associate with the Brazilian game?

Marcelo, Alves and Adriano are all nominally full-backs – superb full-backs whose attacking intent sets them apart, but full-backs nonetheless – and Kaka, though a playmaker, is the least likely of the four to start the game. Real-Barca is being billed as the great attacking football festival of the year, yet almost none of the flair and creativity on display will come from Brazil.

In truth, the country which produced arguably the finest display of attacking football the world has ever seen – the 1970 World Cup win – and which has since inspired awe across the world with its seemingly endless conveyor belt of footballing ingenuity and grace decided long ago to abandon the idealistic approach of their predecessors in favour of unbridled pragmatism.

After 1970, Brazil had continued to produce more players with sparkling technical ability per generation than most countries could manage in a century: Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Careca, Muller, Junior and Eder are but a handful of examples. Yet defensive naivity, stout opposition and plain misfortune prevented Brazil from winning another World Cup until an unfancied, pragmatic outfit beat Italy on penalties to lift the tophy in 1994.

Since the early ’90s, while steady production of world-class Brazilian players has continued, the ratio of attacking players to defenders has fallen significantly. This is to not say that Brazil no longer produces players who can play with real style; over the past two decades we’ve seen the likes of Rivaldo, Denilson (this one, not this one)and, of course, Ronaldinho burst onto the world stage.

Yet those three examples epitomise the tendency of Brazilian flair players to get phased out, systematically, by developments in the world game and by their own national team. Ronaldinho, in particular, demonstrates how the modern-day Brazilian flair player simply can’t survive in a game in which the intense physical and tactical preparation of players requires more than ‘just’ mind-boggling skill.

Whilst Ronaldinho’s laissez-faire attitude to physical conditioning would have made little difference in, say, 1982, he was excluded from the two sides – Brazil and Barcelona – which would, historically, have offered his vast array of abilities their spiritual home. It would appear that the demands of the game in the 21st Century make no exceptions.

The trouble is, Brazilian football appears to be abandoning flair altogether. It’s not as though a player can’t be allowed to play creatively, with freedom and intuition as well as brawn. Ironically, it’s Brazil’s Latin American neighbours and arch-rivals, Argentina, who have become Europe’s reservoir of attacking talent.

In addition to Lionel Messi, players like Veron, Tevez, Riquelme, Aimar, Di Maria, Saviola, Lavezzi and many more have flooded Europe with Latin American style – as well as substance. Brazil, while still capable of producing ruthlessly efficient goalscorers, like Luis Fabiano and the exciting young prospect Neymar, seems intent on reversing the ill fortune which plagued its beautiful teams of the 1980s. Instead of world-class playmakers and wingers, we are seeing more and more players whose game is based on muscular power, blistering pace and limitless endurance.

Brazil now boasts the most impressive collection of central defenders in the world, their 6th, 7th and 8th best options easily good enough to start for most national teams; the midfielders, lacking in flair, are often just as big and powerful as their defenders; and, as tonight’s match will show, Brazil is producing more attack-minded full-backs than ever before.

As Alex Bellos explains in his wonderful Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, Brazilians take winning seriously. Arguably the world’s most racially and socially diverse country, football is a unifying force capable of bringing a real sense of national pride to a contry which, whilst building  itself into one of the world’s biggest emerging economies, still suffers from immense social inequality. Huge infrastructural investments have seen the development of a huge series of football camps, designed to encourage the physical development of youngsters and to foster a winning mentality.

Often, this has come att he expense of the improvised street kickabouts which have encourages young players to develop ball control and skill intuitively. The result is more Julio Baptista instead of Socrates. But it’s also Lucio, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Alex or Juan instead of, say, Junior Baiano. It’s Luisao over Luizinho.

Tonight, Barcelona’s blend of Spaniards and an Argetninian, the brilliant Messi, will once more try to showcase their brand of irrepressible passing, movement and skill, whilst Real Madrid will look to Cristiano Ronaldo, a Portuguese whose name tells us much about the legacy of Brazilian football in itself (though, bizarrely, he was actually named after Ronald Reagan), for goals. For inspiration and flair, they will look to Mesut Ozil…a German.

How times change.

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  1. Neymar, Ganso, Douglas Costa, i think your missing the point, and Robinho, yes more pragmatic but those players provide flair, skill, and creativity that Brazil is renowned for!!

  2. Let’s not forget pato, hulk, alves…brazil have always had a storng physical side with flair and skill. they still do, but at the moment pato and ganso are hurt so they didn’t have a chance to play vs Argentina and Scotland…but remember that game vs the US, pato, ganso, neymar, robinho, alves and the power of silva david luiz, that was a full brazil squad that diplayed the brazil of old, and that is what you should expect to see in the coming years

  3. You can’t compare Brazil of old with current players.
    The game has moved on, it is faster more athletic. Teams are more tactical, more organised than ever. The languid skills of Garrincha, Jairzinho, Rivelino, Socrates, Zico, Falcao etc would struggle more with the modern game due to the fitness levels and pace.
    Maybe Brazil took a step back with the period of Dunga – both as player and coach but that was more of a blip than a long term trend.
    If you look at players coming through now such as Neymar, Ganso, Jadson, Douglas Costa, Oscar, Nilmar, and there are plenty more coming off the “production line” – I would suggest that Brazil are marrying the harder, physical attributes such as Thiago Silva with flair which will stand them well for the future

    • Harrison – I have to completely disagree with your point about the game moving on. Ronaldinho is a perfect example of how you don’t have to be super-fit to be the best player in the world. Yes, at his peak he was probably tougher than most in, say, the 1970 squad, but the fundamental aspect of his game was ingenuity and skill.

      Whilst Brazil are producing some exciting young attacking players, I don’t think the argument that they are combining styles holds. The youngsters coming through over the past ten years or so have simply not been as good compared with the flair players produced abroad as, say, the Brazilians in the ’80s. Look at Argentina. The game may have ‘moved on’, but they still produce players like Messi and, lately, di Maria, Gaitan etc. Not to mention playmakers like Riquelme we’ve seen down the years.

      Contrast with the sheer amount of defenders and physical midfielders coming out of Brazil. I’d say it’s a complete switch in styles rather than a compromise.

  4. I agree with Harrison. Ronaldinho or Kaka (when he played at Milan) are examples of skillful players that adopt in today’s fast and physical game; they are not the same as those in the 70’s. Ronaldinho at his best, would produce pinpoint accurate passes with his first touch, simply because he had no time to control the ball. Somebody would close him down immediately.
    In the 70’s and even 80’s the game was vastly different, much slower and the defenders were not closing on opponents as fast as they do today. I agree that most skilled players of that time would either struggle or have to adopt their game to survive. The author’s conclusion based on the fact that the roster of Real/Barcelona does not have “creative” Brazilians is ridiculous How many “creative” Spanish midfielders played for Real in those games? Alonso was the only one and technically he is a defensive midfielder. Does that mean that Spain does not produce midfielders with flair? Doesn’t Alves or Marcelo have flair?

    • Sonsie, I think you’ve missed the point:

      1) As I have argued throughout, it isn’t just a case of there being fewer flair players coming out of Brazil. This point on its own might be countered by your argument that the game has changed. It’s the fact that Brazil produces less flair players in comparison with other countries, whose output is increasing.

      Put simply: Brazil had a much bigger share of the world’s flair players in, say, the 1980s than today. When you thought of flair in the 80s, you first thought would often be Brazil. Now, it’d be Spain, Argentina etc.

      2) Not many creative midfielders from Spain played for Madrid, sonsie, probably because all of Spain’s best midfielders were on the opposing team. So, no, this doesn’t prove that Spain lacks creative midfielders.

      My point was simply that whereas in the past, one might have expected the most hotly-anticipated clash in world club football to involve Brazilians in the attacking midfield or striker positions (those which involve the most flair), instead, on this occasion, the creativity is coming from other sources.

      • look name one player other than iniesta who really has flair in spain??? the team could only score 8 goals in the WC, why they don’t have a messi like barca have, they are challenged athletically, can pass the ball all day but no play is extremely talented to win a match on their own, but here comes neymar, and ganso and more on the way. Spain are great at pass and move and are creative with that style, but Argentina can play that style but have tevez, higuain, messi, aguero, lavezzi, all players that can win games on their own in addition to their “pass and move” game

  5. Brazil is one of the up and coming economic powerhouses [BRIC] which means some of the clubs are competing with European clubs on a salary scale. Whilst some Brazilian players have returned to end the career [Adriano, Ronaldo] others like Fabiano and Ronaldinho are returning partly because of the salaries on offer. Look at Neymar – Santos turned down 12m bid last year, signed him to a new 4yr contract on improved terms. They could afford to do so. So are you sure less creative players are coming out of Brazil or is that just fewer maybe coming to Europe?

    • Harrison, I’m talking about all Brazilian players, the vast majority of whom, if they’re good enough, come to Europe. In fact, I mention Neymar, Luis Fabiano and Ronaldinho in my post.

      I would further hazard a guess that Ronaldinho is returning to Brazil for personal and football reasons. The top clubs in Europe offer salaries which clubs in Brazil can’t compete with; Ronaldinho isn’t being offered astronomical sums in Europe because of his cavalier attitude to physical conditioning, not because clubs can’t afford him.

      Brazilian football obviously produces some of the world’s best players but, regardless of the economic might of some of its clubs, it isn’t producing flair or creative players in anything like the same volume as in previous years. It has been overtaken by Argentina and Spain in that department, and there are many other countries who now produce flair players at the same rate as Brazil.

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